Top Ten Tuesday: Beloved and Under-Exposed Favourites

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and The Bookish, has the following theme: Ten Books I Really Love But Feel Like I Haven’t Talked About Enough/In A While. As I mention The Handmaid’s Tale and Simon Vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda every seventeen seconds, I will make the most of this opportunity to big-up some of the most favourite books of all time.

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby
I went to my first football match with my dad when I was 12 and, in the days that followed, he presented me with a copy of Fever Pitch and said, “if you’re going to be a proper football fan, you need to read this.” He wasn’t wrong. Fever Pitch is basically the how-to guide for surviving the horrors of supporting a football team; it is one of the truest books I’ve ever read.

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriverkevin
I have read this twice and it scared the b’jaysus out of me on both occasions; it is frankly a miracle that I was brave enough to actually have a child of my own, given how convinced I was that I, too, would spawn a crossbow-weilding maniac. Although the book is psychologically terrifying, it is also astoundingly brilliant. For me, Shriver is quite hit and miss (pun intended); I love Kevin and enjoyed So Much for That and A Perfectly Good Family, but The Post-Birthday World and that one about tennis did nothing for me. This is definitely the one to go for.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
I think I have to concede that I am annoyingly conventional and would have to say Wuthering Heights is my favourite Bronte novel, but I absolutely love Tenant; it’s far more subtle and nuanced, with actual grown-ups instead of ghost-fancying lunatics. The slow-burning sadness of Helen’s marriage breakdown is brilliantly realised. Anne is the best one.

World War Z by Max BrooksWorld War Z
This blew my mind; I was in no way prepared for how good this was going to be.  The oral history style of the writing makes it really different; usually, I wouldn’t be a fan of a narrative which is split between so many different stories, but, in the case of World War Z, it only makes it even better. Sometimes I have dreams in which I wrote the bit about the astronaut and these are my happiest moments.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
I can’t believe I don’t talk about this book more; I constantly recommend it to actual humans who I know in real life but it would appear I don’t devote the same amount of time to extolling its virtues online. I love this book; it’s so beautifully written with so many complex characters and relationships. Also, post-apocalyptic world + Shakespeare = a hit.

One by Sarah Crossanone.jpg
On the YA front, I have banged on relentlessly about Illuminae and I’ll Give You the Sun, but my love of One is a little more under the radar. I reviewed it here, but suffice to say the use of verse in the writing adds to what is already an amazingly affecting book. Every time I even see the cover, it makes me do a small sob.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck
This was one of the first books I ever reviewed, and when I say “reviewed,”  I mean I drooled all over it and then passed out on my keyboard from all the passionate feelings I experienced. Cathy Ames is basically my favourite ever, even if she is the purest manifestation of evil to be found outside of pantomime evil queens in YA fantasy series.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
Thankfully, I read this before having a small person or it might never have happened (I’m sorry, Middlemarch); it is ridiculously long and there are some five page descriptions of stars, but it’s just wonderful, even if you read it without singing the musical soundtrack. I am too old to ship YA couples, but I allow myself to think of a world in which Eponine and Enjolras find happiness together, probably while leading a revolution.

BasiceightThe Basic Eight by Daniel Handler
In real life, I have successfully bullied a number of people into reading this book but I don’t think I have banged on about it sufficiently here. I think I saw this on some kind of Buzzfeed list and bought it on a bit of a whim; consequently, I was completely floored by its brilliance. Everything about it – the bitchiness, Flannery’s cutting narration, the study questions, the ending – is astonishing.

The Chronicles of Narmo by Caitlin Moran
Caitlin Moran is now very famous for her brilliant grown-up books like How to Be A Woman, but when I was a kid, she was known to me only as the author of The Chronicles of Narmo: a semi-autobiographical children’s book about a crazy family which remains one of the funniest things I’ve ever read in my life.

I now want to read all these books again. Oh dear.

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A Review of The Love That Split the World

lovethatsplitA shocking thing has happened to me. It has taken me completely by surprise and I don’t know what it all means.

The shocking thing is this: I read a book which was primarily concerned with romance and I did not hate it or vomit in my mouth. I KNOW. This is big news. The book in question is The Love That Split the World by Emily Henry, which I’ve had my eye on for ages and finally got round to reading a few weeks ago.

What is The Love That Split the World about, I hear you cry. Well, dear reader, yours is a question with many answers. It is definitely about Natalie, who has just graduated from high school and is counting down the days till her big move to college. It is also about the fact that Natalie is adopted and comes from Native American heritage. It is also quite deeply concerned with the fact that Natalie is visited by Grandmother, who, confusingly, is neither real nor actually her grandmother, but who tells her stories from her Native American culture and issues warnings like “someone is going to die” before disappearing. Natalie sees weird things that she can’t explain. If you’re keeping up, you should also know that this book is about Natalie’s relationship with her ex and burgeoning connection with Beau, a mysterious stranger with really nice arms. Really, this book is about Beau’s arms.

That’s not even all of it. The Love That Split the World is about identity, family, love, independence, alcoholism and psychology. It is part-romance, part-fantasy, part-scifi, in a feat of genre-bending for which Emily Henry should win a prize. Aside from anything else, it’s beautifully written; Natalie is an intelligent narrator but not an unrealistically self-aware one, which makes her all the more compelling. As she struggles to understand what is happening to her, what she has to do and how in the world she can do it, Natalie never becomes annoyingly whingey. Henry avoids many of the cliches which annoy me in YA; Natalie has nice parents who care what she does, nobody masters any magical powers ridiculously quickly or complains about how hard it is to do so. I’m not entirely sure I understood all the scientific/mystical explanations but, then again, neither did Natalie, so I felt like this was acceptable.

As for the romance, this is usually the aspect of a book which I find the least interesting, but, while reading The Love That Split the World, I surprised myself with how much I was rooting for everything to work out. There’s an element of insta-love, with a disproportionate amount of people being shoved up against things in order for kissing to happen, but this is all fine, because Henry makes you genuinely care about Natalie and everything that happens to and around her. I found myself experiencing some long-buried feelings (eugh, feelings) towards the end and getting a bit stressed about what was going to happen.

I really liked The Love That Split the World; it is an intelligent and thought-provoking book with enough reality to keep it grounded and enough fantasy to give it a sense of escapism. I’ve seen it compared to The Time Traveler’s Wife, which, coincidentally, is probably the last book which gave me feelings of this kind. You’ll care about the characters, as well as spend the rest of your week wondering if you’re actually in a parallel dimension.

 

A Review of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

longway.jpgThe Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers was longlisted for the Baileys Prize last week; so was The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney, which is one of my favourite books of the last year. Having decided that championing the latter is only meaningful if I actually read some of the others, I picked up the copy of The Long Way… which had been knocking around on my shelf for a couple of weeks.

Ostensibly, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is about the crew aboard the Wayfarer; a ship which specialises in punching holes in space for ease of transport by other vessels. I think that’s what it does, anyway. I am not well-schooled in sci-fi and the “sci” element confused me; this is a reflection on my single award science GCSE, not on the quality of the writing. Early on, Ashby, the Wayfarer’s captain, is presented with an irresistible deal which will earn the crew a fortune; the only problem is that it involves traveling to a distant part of the galaxy, to a region torn apart by civil war.

Initially, I was really entertained; Chambers launches straight into space-related excitement, with transports whizzing through the universe and aliens introduced from the off. The opening chapters have a delightful Hitchhiker’s Guide vibe, with an anarchic comedy that recalls Douglas Adams. Chambers nonchalantly drops in a dizzying array of alien species, as well as interesting human characters, whose interactions are always entertaining. The crew of the Wayfarer are all brilliant in their own ways; I particularly liked Sissix, a reptilian alien with notably affectionate tendencies, and Ohan, who comes from a species who voluntarily become infected with something which makes each individual into twins (again, not so well-versed in the science). Rosemary, one of the humans on-board, is running away from a dark secret, while another is in love with the ship’s AI. It is all very exciting.

The problem with all this character-related brilliance (and make no mistake, the characters are brilliant) is that the main plot is somewhat neglected. Developing each character with a backstory and individual story makes the middle third of The Long Way… very episodic, with lots of amusing incidents on different planets, plenty of astonishing creations in terms of character and convincing world-building in terms of the history and culture of the various alien species the crew encounters, but minimal focus on the main plot; for most of the book, I completely forgot about the job the Wayfarer was meant to be pursuing, and it seemed like the crew did too. This did affect my enjoyment of the book, despite the tremendous entertainment it afforded. It is fair to say that the title is an entirely accurate description of the story.

Overall, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a really fun read; Chambers has lovingly created a cast of characters I not only enjoyed reading about, but would quite like to go for a drink with. I loved the space setting and found the explanations of the politics and history of the galaxy genuinely engaging, and Chambers’ writing style is hugely entertaining. I just would have liked a little more narrative focus because I am incredibly dull and reliant on organisation to make my life make sense. Boo to me.

longway.jpg

Be True to Yourself at Waterstones: My Kind of Night Out

In deeply exciting news, I left my house after dark this week. Yes, it was very out of the ordinary. Don’t worry, I’m fine. Nobody kidnapped me.

The reason for my unusual expedition was the Be True to Yourself event at Waterstones in Leeds: my number one hangout at any time of day. In a week in which other teachers at my school were taking netballers to the Caribbean and 14 year olds to the battlefields of Europe, I took on the awesome responsibility of escorting three outrageously well-behaved girls to a bookshop which I visit on a weekly basis anyway. Yes, my school is lucky to have me.

jandy.jpg

Here is a terrible photo taken by me. Jandy Nelson is reading and I am fainting. Observe very cool-haired person in front of me.

The event consisted of three exciting YA authors – Lisa Williamson, Jandy Nelson and Sara Barnard – discussing and reading from their work. It was the first time I’ve been to something like this and it was exactly the kind of civilised and well-mannered event I’ve been awaiting for three decades.

Some of my highlights from the evening were:

Lisa Williamson, author of The Art of Being Normal, admitting that her main motivation for writing was that it is “so fun making stuff up for a job.” Jandy Nelson, more intriguingly, described inspiration coming to her through “a giant funnel in my head,” which I assume to be metaphorical as no funnels were visible at that time.I also enjoyed her admission that my beloved I’ll Give You the Sun was born out of the fact that she is “in love with art but the worst artist ever.” My numerous attempts to write a great novel about a rock star attest to the fact that I can relate.

Adding to my belief that Lisa is a secret comic genius, when asked about the writing process, she confessed that “you always want someone to come up with the perfect process so you can steal it.” Sara Barnard, author of Beautiful Broken Things, bemoaned the fact that people always ask “what happens” in the book when you’re writing, rather than asking about the characters; all three authors agreed that characters come first, with plot taking a back seat in the early stages. Lisa added to her immense coolness by admitting to a teenage love of Sweet Valley High; it is a well-known rite of passage that all women currently in their thirties read the SVH books as teens and now realise they were terrible.

Two things you should know about Jandy Nelson: she writes reclining in the dark and, more disturbingly, bends the spine of books while she reads. I know this because I was horrified to witness it as she read from I’ll Give You the Sun. Although, in fairness, it was presumably her copy and she wrote the damn thing. She showed some brilliant photos of herself having a sculpting lesson as part of her research for the book and summed it up by saying “sculpting is totally badass.” Quite.

A key thing I learned from this event is that writing books is a job you can do in your pyjamas, with the added benefit of scaring the postman. All these things appeal to me. I don’t particularly like my postman.

suns and pizza.jpg

We win the prize for Most Copies of I’ll Give You the Sun seen during dinner. Hurray!

And, finally, one of my favourite quotes from the night: when asked what advice they’d give their 16 year old selves, Sara’s response was that she would tell herself, “nobody’s actually looking.” Man, I wish I’d known that when I was 16 (*cough* 25).

Aside from being my perfect night out (except for the bit when they made up leave the shop), Be True to Yourself was fascinating and entertaining and other adjectives entirely befitting the talented writers involved. I can’t wait to stalk more bookish types by hanging out at Waterstones in the future. Thanks to the events team at the Leeds store for organising this event and asking such insightful questions!